In his play, Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare wrote: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Yet we know from experience that names and titles have much to do with our perceptions.

In the church, those who serve often go by different names and different titles. The most common biblical title for one who serves in the church is “deacon.” A deacon is a person who serves the church according to the Word of God for the glory of God.

Although some churches use other titles for the people who serve officially or unofficially among the members of their congregations, the end result proves the biblical point: all churches need deacons… those who serve in various ways to strengthen and edify the church.

In our recent exposition of 1 Timothy 3:8-13, we learned that God calls both men and women to serve the church in various ways according to the qualifications in His Word.

In our conservative traditional churches we may be a bit uncomfortable with the title “deaconess” or having women serve in the official role of “deacon.” After all, it seems that men have always been called deacons in the churches we know.

Many churches committed to the Bible therefore hesitate to use the title “deacon” to describe a woman who serves in the church. That’s understandable. It seems that liberal churches have distorted the roles of both men and women making them all appear interchangeable.

As we rightly avoid the errors of liberal-feminist theology that blurs gender distinctions between men and women, we also need to avoid the error of over-correcting to the dismissal of all roles for women who serve in the church.

The common link is that both errors miss what God’s Word is teaching.

Another part of our discomfort is owing to the way some denominations have misapplied the role of deacon to refer to a ruling office rather than a serving office. But biblically, deacons don’t rule, they serve; and both men and women are called to serve the church in various ways.

It would have been much easier for us if the Apostle Paul had simply used the word “deaconess” in 1 Timothy 3:11 instead of gunaikos which can mean either wives or women.

But there’s a good reason for why Paul didn’t do that: there’s no such word as “deaconess” in the Greek language. The word diakonos is a masculine noun that simply means “servant” or “one who serves.” This word was used to describe both males and females in the serving role.

This is why Paul had to add the term “women” (gunaikos) in 1 Timothy 3:11 to distinguish women who serve the church from men who serve in this same role. They are “women servers.”

Although the editors of the English Standard Version translate the word gunaikos to mean wife/wives—which it can mean—the context makes it far more likely that the word here is woman/women. It would then simply refer to women who serve in the church.

In his commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, Dr. Donald Guthrie explains the difficulty:

“The reference [to women in 1 Timothy 3:11] is too general to postulate with certainty a distinct order of deaconesses, but some feminine ministry was necessary in visitation. . . . For such work certain moral qualities would be essential whether for deacons’ wives or for deaconesses in their own right.”

Dr. Philip G. Ryken adds, “Since the meaning is not certain, perhaps it is best to translate the word gunaikas as ‘women helpers.’ Indeed, it is possible to argue that these women were neither deacon’s wives, nor deaconesses, but women who assisted the deacons.”

If Paul was referring to the wives of male deacons, we have to ask ourselves: why does he give specific qualifications for the wives of men who serve the church as deacons and give no qualifications for the wives of elders who have more influence by virtue of the fact that their husbands exercise authority over the church? It doesn’t fit the context or the serving role.

New Testament women frequently carried out diaconal (serving) ministry, in the broad sense of the word. Consider Dorcas, who was “full of good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36). Or Lydia, who clothed the Philippians in purple (Acts 16:11-15).

Or Tryphena and Tryphosa, women described as “workers in the Lord” (Rom. 16:12). Or especially Phoebe, who was “a patron of many” and is identified as “a servant of the church at Cenchreae”—literally, “a deacon” or servant (Rom. 16:1-2).

Many New Testament women carried out diaconal (serving) ministry and at least one of them was called a “deacon,” even if she was not ordained as an officer of the church.

The obvious conclusion is that, whatever title they are given, women must be deeply involved in the mercy ministries of the church. Women have always served in the church.

In his survey of the women’s ministry in the early church, J. M. Ross shows that deaconesses served as doorkeepers, visited the sick, helped when women were baptized and cared for orphans. In the fourth century, John Chrysostom described the order of deaconesses to be “necessary and useful and honorable in the Church.”

Therefore understanding gunaikos as “women” who serve in verse 11 better harmonizes the general meaning of deacon as “servant” with the rest of the New Testament’s teaching. That’s the first reason it’s preferable to translate gunaikos as “women” instead of “wives” in verse 11.

Furthermore, if the Bible meant “wives,” we might expect it to say “their wives” so as to eliminate any possibility of confusion. But no possessive pronoun is used here.

A second reason is that both verse 8 and verse 11 contain the word “likewise” (hosautos), which introduces a new office or category like the one that preceded it. Paul is therefore establishing a similar order of women who serve in the church with specific qualifications.

In 1 Timothy 3:1, Paul refers to the office of overseer. Then in verse 8, he transitions to the office of deacon using the word “likewise” to distinguish male deacons as a separate office from elders.

So there is an office in view in verse 11. It regards women who serve and is introduced with the word “likewise” and buttressed with high and holy qualifications for those who serve in this way.

Both verse 8 and verse 11 are grammatically dependent on the main verb in verse 2, which strengthens the connection between them. Taken together, these parallels make it sound as if the women Paul had in mind were to fulfill a separate but equal office in the church as servers.

This role or office for women who serve in the church doesn’t require that we call them “deaconesses” or “female deacons.” The name isn’t as important as the function they serve.

We may call them the Women’s Service Ministry or Ladies Helping Ministry. The main point is that what we do lines up with God’s Word in 1 Timothy 3:11 and elsewhere.

In no way does serving the church violate the prohibition against women teaching men or exercising authority over men in the church. The deacon role is one of service and helping.

The ministry of such women is vital to the health of the church. If the problem with feminist theology has been its failure to submit to divine order, the traditional church has often failed to employ the gifts of women to their full biblical extent. And we all suffer as a result.

Whether or not they are called deaconesses or women servers, women should exercise servant ministry to the glory of God, in particular to other women and children. They should “minister to those who are in need, to the sick, to the friendless, and to any who may be in distress.”

The result will be increasing health and joy in the church!

To that great end,
Pastor Kevin


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